Corpus and Informants

The archival source for the present study is The Paston Letters, a collection of 422 documents with roughly 246,353 words, written between 1425 and 1503 by 15 family members spanning three generations.2 The Pastons were nouveau riche landowners, who rose from the peasantry to the aristocracy within just two generations (Davis 1971). For the purpose of our study, the informants observed were five male members of this family, born between 1436 and 1459 and belonging to the second and third generations, about whom we have extensive personal biographical information (Davis 1971): John I (JP1), William II (WP2), John II (JP2), John III (JP3), and William III (WP3) (see Figure 7.2). Given the

The Paston family, with the five members observed for this study indicated in bold

Figure 7.2 The Paston family, with the five members observed for this study indicated in bold.

Table 7.1 Frequency of

use across the lifespan for five Paston family members (n = 2018)

Age of Informants

Time-point 1: 1460 Proportion of


Time-point 2: 1480 Proportion of


Late teens


76.2% (93/122)


75.8% (418/551)




83.3% (275/330)


94.3% (33/35)



82.4% (670/813)


100.0% (58/58)




97.2% (106/109)


80.2% (1456/1816)

97.6% (197/202)

widespread illiteracy characteristic of the period and the resulting use of scribes and dictation (Davis 1971), these five writers are the only authors among the 15 family members whose letters were autographed rather than dictated. They are arranged in two time slices and four age-groups which allows us to observe their behaviour procedurally “in arbitrary determined but equal age spans such as decades” (Eckert 1997: 155): informants in their teens, in their 20s, 30s, and 40s between 1460 and 1465 and informants in their 20s, 30s, and 40s between 1480 and 1485 (see Table 7.1).

Linguistic Variable: ⟨th⟩

In order to observe and trace language variation and change processes across the lifespan of the five selected Paston family members, the variable investigated is an innovation in the spelling practices of the period: the progressive adoption of the new variant

at the expense of the old runic <ф>, as in ping (>thing), broper (>brother), or comep (>co- meth). To simplify the situation somewhat, the use of the innovating digraph was re-introduced through Latin influence by Anglo- Norman scribes in the 12th century. As found in Stenroos (2004, 2006), Bergs (2007), and Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy (2013), the presence of in both Latin and Biblical texts acted as an influential external prestigious norm, so that the Roman-based orthographic form became overtly popular during the 15th century, operating above the level of social awareness and in connection with social and stylistic factors (Hernandez-Campoy and Garcfa-Vidal 2018a, 2018b). The form began as a contact-induced change, introduced as a prestige innovation from Continental Europe, adopted in what was then embryonic Standard English, and gradually became supralocalised (see Hernandez- Campoy 2020 for further details). The new form spread through the literate ranks of the whole of England, behaving as a Labovian (1972) sociolinguistic marker, initially diffusing in careful (conscious) styles, acquiring overt prestige and becoming part of the accepted linguistic norm, as a typical Labovian change-from-above. Given Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy’s (2013) finding that gradually increased across 78 years (from 1425 to 1503) in 280 letters from 11 male Paston family members, the current study examines this change across the lifespan of five Paston family members. Based on 20 years of panel analysis, the research hypothesis is that these five individual letter writers follow the same patterns observed in the community.

Table 7.1 shows the frequency of

use (n = 2018) across the lifespan of these five Paston letter writers (John I, William II, John II, John III, and William III). The correlation of the variable with the selected informants and their age when writing these letters allows us to analyse and compare the use of the innovation at the levels of both inter- and intra-speaker variation, including any changes within the individual during this process of standardisation.

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